As Drew Hunt noted the other day, Jersey Boys isn’t the first time Clint Eastwood has directed a film about musicians. His Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) cemented his reputation as a serious filmmaker (a mere 13 features into his directorial career); but there’s also Piano Man (2003), his contribution to the PBS miniseries The Blues, and Honkytonk Man (1982), his adaptation of Clancy Carlile’s Depression-set novel. There are also the Eastwood films that aren’t explicitly about music, but where music factors crucially in the storytelling: Play Misty for Me, which stars Eastwood as a jazz DJ, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which draws heavily on the songs of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer for its mood. Honkytonk may be the most undervalued of all of these. Made during Eastwood’s cycle of light comedies from the late 70s and early 80s (which also contains his lasting contributions to stoner cinema, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, action comedies starring Eastwood and a lovable orangutan), the movie is a tale about a hard-luck country singer on the road to Nashville with his teenage nephew. It’s light on story, but rich in atmosphere—I think it makes for swell summer viewing.
In its gentle depictions of dust bowl America and 30s radio culture, Honkytonk suggests a kissing cousin to Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974). It’s also the closest the filmmaker came to making a musical prior to his latest film. Eastwood sings a good deal in the movie (in case you’re wondering, his vocal performances here are nowhere near as embarrassing as the one that closes Gran Torino or the one that opens Any Which Way You Can), but more importantly the influence of early country music seems to have shaped the film’s narrative structure. This is a rambling story about a rambling man, meandering into back-room card games, country jails, henhouses, cathouses, and fleabag hotels. Eastwood’s Red Stovall is a lovable screwup, too stubborn to quit drinking or seek treatment for his tuberculosis (a potentially mawkish subplot that Eastwood the director handles with characteristic restraint), but generous enough to treat his 14-year-old nephew like a man and perform favors for folks he meets on the road.
Eastwood’s son Kyle plays the nephew, and one pleasure of the film lies in savoring the unhurried—and at times goofy—rapport between the established actor and his inexperienced kid. (At times, this feels like a feature-length extension of Patrick Wayne’s cameo scene in The Searchers.) Honkytonk also encourages us to savor the settings, which are as lovingly designed as any in Eastwood’s more famous period films. Production designer Edward Carfagno is responsible for the sets of Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Tea and Sympathy, and Eastwood takes full advantage of him. The environments feel lived-in, not stodgily re-created, strengthening the film’s ties to cultural tradition. And this being an Eastwood film, there are lots of scenes that play out under carefully arranged shadows—and these provide the film with a sense of gravitas to balance out the breezy storytelling.